A scene from iTMOi (in the mind of igor) | Sydney Opera House

You don’t have to be a dancer, or be into dance at all, to take away something potent and memorable from Akram Kahn Company’s iTMOi (in the mind of igor), which seeks to penetrate the mysteries and complexities of Stravinsky’s considerable brain.

It sounds like the kind of experiment one might encounter in a Vincent Price (or even Steve Martin) movie. And where Stravinksy’s genius ends and Khan’s begins is somewhat difficult to discern. But the latter would seem to have succeeded handsomely in making the musical physical. Which isn’t to say the work is entirely consistent or that one can clearly discern the head from the tale. It’s more about the visceral. Hell, it’s all about the visceral. And hell is a good word to apply. This is a hellish landscape, from beginning to end; one which may well mark out the terrain of the Stravinsky (or any) brain all too accurately. What we see isn’t what we get from our conscious minds so much, as deep below the level of our day-to-day cognitive operating system. iTMOi is a dream takes place in a dream state; or, more precisely, a nightmare.

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Khan has tapped the vein of Stravinsky’s apparent obsession with religious and sacrificial rites and harvested rich, scarlet blood. The choreographic bones of this work are built around key characters: a kind of voodoo priest, probably given to speaking in tongues, confronts us with the mesmeric, sensual violence of obsessive, repetitive gestures: it’s a fine line between fervour and madness, we’re led to believe. He could be a tribal elder from deepest, darkest Africa, but he seems to be clad in something more akin to RC robes. It’s a striking and unsettling allusion to the hypnotic suggestion and mass hysteria that passes for faith and revelation. Throughout the work, we’re regaled with the story of God’s punishing test of Abraham, in which the Almighty asks his charge to bind and kill his son, Isaac. There can be no greater biblical anachronism, surely, than one in which God, whose spin doctors purvey Him (or Her) as a font of endless love, acts so deceptively, manipulatively, cynically and cruelly. It’s a challenging image and the priest is by no means the only chillingly compelling character in this menagerie.

There’s a zombie-like, entranced innocent, a kind of haughty ice-queen, her defiantly chaste morality slowly melting, at the gates of this Hell. We see her in an all-white, hooped dress, one breast exposed. Her head is adorned with the kind of hat that would inspire the utmost envy at the Melbourne Cup, or Ascot; a millinery marvel. Then there is the bestial, horned figure skulking around with, one suspects, a capacity for ferocity that might be unleashed by the merest provocation. Kitie Nakano’s costumes aren’t only contextually evocative, but standalone works of art.

I might’ve imagined it, but I detected something of Khan’s khatak training in much of the movement, which is often paroxysmal; an entirely appropriate aesthetic, given Stravinsky’s involvement with patterns and their disruption, as a means to communicating emotions. The five classic tributes to the Hindu gods (expressed in specific ornamental movements) fundamental to that traditional form would seem to be relative to the subject in hand. And kathak and Stravinsky are both characterised by rhythmic sophistication.

The music, by long-time collaborator Nitin Sawhney, Ben Frost and Jocelyn Pook, much like the dance, almost schizophrenically zigs and zags between the melodious and heavily metallic (there are phrasal references to Stravinsky’s composition, but these are minimal), while Matt Deeley’s scenography and Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting design create a netherworld into which we can’t help but be fatalistically drawn. It’s an inferno of kinetic energy; spectacularly carnal, counterpointing the orthodox spirituality that so influenced, informed, infused and insinuated itself into Stravinsky’s work. This is Khan’s earnest attempt to penetrate a great creative force: the mind of Igor. But whether he succeeds in that, or not, tends to become irrelevant, for this is an ecstatic journey on its own merits, touching the sides of that which animates the spirit of man. And art. It crisscrosses the abstract and narrative, conscious and subconscious; remaining, throughout, about as accessible and relatable as dance gets.

iTMOi is a fitting, resonant celebration of the centenary of Stravinsky’s early ballet, The Rite of Spring; a wellspring of imagination, if you will, much like young Igor’s, at least in its intensity and fundamental concerns. Stravinsky changed the world, with one half-hour opus. If you lean towards the dismissive or dubious, Khan and co may very well change your mind about contemporary dance.

The details: iTMOi (in the mind of igor) played the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House on August 28 to September 1.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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